By the European Commission’s admission, the EU has already entered into 42 different types of trade deal

By the European Commission’s admission, the EU has already entered into 42 different types of trade deal

Today’s piece accompanies 42: The answer to life, the universe, and everything, published with a foreword by Steve Baker MP.

Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells us of an unusual hero of his age. One of the characters involved in the defeat of the Persians went by the name of Sophanes the Anchor. The story goes that he chained himself to an unfeasibly large lump of nautical ironmongery, and lugged it with him onto the battlefield. That way, when the enemy charged and the press became overwhelming, he would not be pushed back but would hold the line.

There’s another alternative Herodotus admits to where the device is merely painted on his shield. But that version’s more of interest to Tony Hart.

Whatever the truth, those in the front line of the Brexit turmoil will now themselves be grateful for any anchors they can find of their own. It’s in that spirit that BrexitCentral have kindly today published the second of my four updated essays intended to try to more widely circulate some guidance to strategic planners in Whitehall and further afield.

The problem facing government is that for decades it has so bought into the EU project that it has largely lost the context behind that ill-starred route. Leaving the EU carried such fundamental strategic effects that its prospect was whispered more softly than Voldemort’s name.

To address this, today’s publication sets out to explore the nature of the EU’s associations with countries, and reviews the astonishing variety of deals that have been agreed over time. Rather than there being a Henry Ford choice of colour scheme (i.e. black or nothing), the variety of agreements has been peacock-dazzling.

A number of years ago, when I first started becoming aware of official distinctions amongst EU trade deals, I came across ten recognised variants, each with a distinct Commission moniker. Already a few weeks later when I was drafting Ten Years On: Britain Without the European Union, it was up to 15. The more I looked into the small print of a widening range of agreements over time, the more I found deals that the Commission itself was classifying using a variety of terms and definitions, emphasising different aspects of the co-operation.

Our 2016 referendum was a choice of Yes or No. But the EU corporately has never seen in such polarised terms when dealing with third parties. True, it has suited supporters of political integration to sell prospects for EU members as black and white, and in Jesuit terms at that. Thus, our referendum was a choice involving three models, where two models (pre- and post-Cameron deal) were barely differentiated, while the third involved a radical change in arrangement – albeit never expressly defined beyond mentioning the trigger event of Article 50.

The salami-slicing machine prefers to operate with unanimity across the EU. It likes internal uniformity not just because of the ideology of ever-closer union, but because it is easier for the Commission to manage, particularly when it comes to interpreting rights under opt out provisions. It also likes to export uniformity to states seeking to accede into the EU, as pro-EU Swiss and Norwegian governments acknowledge, and less pro-EU politicians reject.

The introduction of Lisbon Treaty mechanisms, allowing go-ahead EU states to unilaterally forge closer links just between themselves, was more to do with circumventing national vetoes than accepting the principle of multiplicities. Recall the huge controversy over generating a Eurozone bail out organisation and the long-winded and initially unsuccessful fight to avoid UK liabilities.

This in turn helps explain why reforming the EU from within has proved impossible. That does not, however, mean that there are only a couple of types of trade deals possible once you are out of the sausage factory.

Looking at the list of terms the Commission itself uses, I now count 42 different types of trade deal. This lends itself to an easy Douglas Adams pun. If we review the examples more thoroughly using our own criteria, we might expand that list quite legitimately into fifty. There are many shades of grey in there. At one end of the range are the categories involving EU membership, but even if we include unusual back-door membership scenarios that only amounts for a tenth of the types of deal on offer.

At the other end of the scale are those unhappy default terms that renegade or emerging states might hold. No one is advocating those. Between these extremes, that still leaves a vast differential. Amongst the rest are a number of deals that offer specialist terms to support developing economies, that cover limited sectors, or those that are too little focused on sectors of particular relevance to the UK’s economic needs.

Subtract all these again and there are still several that offer opportunities for the UK to settle in. It’s a happy range I call the Goldilocks Zone, after the astronomical term for an orbit around a star that is life-generating, neither too hot nor too cold.

The variety of options means there is no such thing as a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ Brexit, but a Mohs scale of choices of relative hardness. 1s and 0s suit computer programmers but not the task before us. The question is not whether Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead, but what colour is it – and that is also a detail we cannot know without first opening the box (by opening negotiations). In sum, it means targeting a free trade deal model, rather than sticking within the Customs Union and paying a hefty rent.

Occupants of hot seats in Whitehall will be getting a clearer appreciation of what their counterparts are likely to be happy with, which sectors create domestic difficulties, and which elements they are most keen on prioritising close co-operation. In turn, this will generate a picture of what options amongst this range are most likely to gain widespread support on the continent, and which areas generate negotiating points the UK can use to lever support in attaining our own strategic objectives.

Critical to this is to remember Brexit provides opportunities. It is not a silver bullet. The UK’s future success requires we make the most of opportunities on offer across departments, rather than seeking to replicate processes and systems previously supplied by the EU. The UK needs a Whitehall revolution, not a proxy Brussels. I would hope someone in various of the Brexit-related departments is already engaged in designing some stirring and inspiring posters to that effect for departmental walls.

As we sit outside of negotiating circles, it is presently largely pointless for commentators to seek to double guess exactly what lies in the minds of distant chancelleries. A few months’ patience will make much clear. In the meantime, however, this paper and its drawing out the basics of what has been achieved in the past may help encourage planners to expand their ambitions. We may not have Sophanes’ anchor, but we can all certainly make use of his nerves.